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Off The Beaten Chemin (Int'l Edition)


BusinessWeek Lifestyle: Travel

Off the Beaten Chemin (int'l edition)

Outside London and Paris, driving is a delightLondon and Paris offer many delights, but driving is not one of them. Traffic gridlock, expensive parking, aggressive drivers--it's enough to make you want to abandon your car. But just a short distance from both cities are uncrowded country roads where you can relax behind the wheel, enjoy the scenery, and soak up a bit of history and local charm. London Bureau Chief Stanley Reed takes us to the Cotswolds in England, while Paris Correspondent Carol Matlack visits the Seine Valley in France.

Not far from London's madding crowd is the rolling farmland of the Cotswolds. Only an hour or so drive northwest of the capital, the Cotswolds fit just about everybody's image of what the English countryside should look like. Winding lanes wander into villages of yellowed stone houses with roofs of mossy slate or thatch. Recently, my wife and I spent a delightful overnight in the area. We left London late on a Saturday morning and returned Sunday afternoon feeling not only that we had relaxed but also that we had accomplished something.

Our first destination was the Rollright Stones, ancient monuments near the town of Chipping Norton. About 80 stones, known as the King's Men, are arranged like jagged teeth in a circle almost 30 meters in diameter, in a clearing surrounded by trees. While smaller than Stonehenge and badly eroded, these stones, which date from 2500 B.C., are still full of mystery. The remains of a tomb that's even older, the "Whispering Knights," stand in a field not far away.

Having had our taste of the primeval, we headed to Chipping Norton to check out its antique stores. There, we looked over rugged oak furniture and forged cooking implements that date back to the 17th century. Then we made another 15-minute loop to Stow-on-the-Wold, a magnificent Cotswolds market town. Even though it's a tourist attraction, Stow-on-the Wold is worth visiting for its narrow streets and old stone houses.

A few minutes farther on was our hotel, Lords of the Manor, in the village of Upper Slaughter. A collection of stone buildings--some more than 200 years old--the hotel looks out over sheep pastures and a stream that has been diverted to create a small lake. After a very good dinner of lamb and a pleasant Cotes-du-Rhone wine, we saw a full moon rising over the hills. Two owls hooted at each other. The atmosphere was as peaceful as you could want.

Refreshed, we returned the next day to London after walking in the countryside and seeing a fox prancing with a rabbit in its mouth.

It was an image glimpsed from the window of a train speeding from Paris to the Normandy coast: a cozy inn, smoke curling from the chimney, nestled below a bluff on the banks of the Seine. It was enough to bring me back to explore the Seine Valley by car--an easygoing trip through a historic region.By Stanley Reed

After an hour's drive on the autoroute from Paris one Saturday morning, my husband and I exited near the town of Vernon and headed for Giverny, the estate where Claude Monet lived from 1883 until his death in 1926. His home is now a museum, surrounded by gardens and lily ponds. A word of caution: Giverny draws lots of visitors, so on weekends it's prudent to arrive soon after the gardens open at 10 a.m.

Recrossing the Seine, we drove to the town of Gaillon to see the Chateau de Gaillon. An early example of Italian Renaissance architecture in the region, it's an ancient feudal manor that was rebuilt in the 15th century by a Catholic prelate who had been inspired by a trip he took to Italy. The chateau was ransacked after the French Revolution, so the interior is mostly bare. But the building is impressive, and we were pleased to discover we were the only visitors as we wandered through. In fact, except for Giverny we saw few tourists in the Seine Valley.

Our next stop was Les Andelys, a pretty town in a bend of the Seine where Camembert, Normandy cider, and other local delicacies were on sale at the Saturday market. After a light lunch, we took a winding road up to the Chateau Gaillard, a fortress built by Richard the Lion-Hearted in 1196. Normandy, after its conquest of Britain, had remained independent of France, and the castle was part of an elaborate defense system to repel French attacks. But the French overran it within 5 years, leaving what is today an imposing ruin affording panoramic views of the countryside.

With evening approaching, we headed back and found the perfect place for dinner: The Hostellerie du Bon Accueil, the inn I'd seen from the train, near the town of Jeufosse. Seated near a fire, we ordered English Channel oysters and broiled sole, topped off with a bottle of Sancerre and Normandy apple crepes for dessert. As we lingered over coffee, it was hard to believe we were just an hour's drive from Paris.By Carol Matlack


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